Sometimes the issues that create friction and develop doctrine come from the margins, not the center, of the Christian faith. The result is a shift in the tradition’s theological center of gravity: Iconoclasm directed Orthodox attention towards images and away, relatively, from Scripture. Newman supposes all such shifts to be healthy to the tradition, but MacIntyre helps show that the solution to one crisis might possibly weaken the tradition’s ability to respond to future crises.
This is an important lesson. Whilst an orthodox Christology might imply a certain attitude towards images and vice versa, it is important to recognize that neither images nor the rejection of them is central to the Christian faith. In a similar manner, whilst orthodox Christianity cannot be consistently preserved with certain misunderstandings of justification, I don’t believe that justification (as commonly understood) is the ‘main hinge on which religion turns’ (Calvin).
The recentering of the faith around the doctrine of (individual) justification that occurred in many areas following the Reformation made Protestant churches especially vulnerable to certain errors that churches centred on a more catholic (with a small ‘c’) reading of the Nicene Creed would not be. This recentering led to weaknesses that could later be exploited by such movements as liberalism, modernism, secularism, individualism and sectarianism.
This was not the only recentering of the faith that has taken place within Protestant circles. For many the gospel is centred on the ‘five points’ of Calvinism. For others it is centred on the ‘fundamentals’ of fundamentalism. Whilst important truths are at issue in these debates, truths that in many cases serve as litmus tests of Christian orthodoxy, they are not generally central to the gospel. Few of these shibboleths belong to the central confession of our faith. As the faith has become recentred on these shibboleths there has been a tendency to neglect truths that really are central to the Christian faith, such as the Trinity. Such recentering of the tradition generally results in us becoming increasingly sectarian and identifying our distinctives as the gospel, rather than our common catholic faith.
A willingness to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos is an important shibboleth for Christological orthodoxy. Deny this and you risk compromising the whole gospel. However, the importance of this shibboleth has in many quarters of the Church led to an unhealthy recentering of the Christian faith and an unbiblical elevation of the role of Mary and a compromise of the Christian faith in other ways. I think that Protestants and evangelicals are often at risk of similar unorthodox tendencies when we misidentify our distinctives and shibboleths as central truths of the gospel. Just as the practices of kissing icons and venerating Mary gained much of their initial popularity as tests of orthodoxy, so many of our shibboleths risk taking on a life of their own and even, in certain cases, eclipsing the truths that they were once designed to protect.
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Thanks for this insightful post. This is an interesting topic, if you have any further thoughts on it, please post them.
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